The unveiling of new fire engines and ladder trucks May 8 was bittersweet, as moments later officials gathered to discuss Prince George’s County’s $152 million deficit and how it could impact the fire/EMS department.
The department’s new equipment — $5.8 million worth of new apparatus that includes fire engines with larger water tanks and ladder trucks with higher reaches — was paid for over a three-year span, officials said. However, as the new items are being implemented, fire officials worry that staffing levels will suffer.
The county’s proposed $3.24 billion fiscal 2014 budget includes county employee cuts through early retirement programs, potential layoffs and furloughs. After the equipment unveiling, the County Council and executive branch staff heard arguments for maintaining staffing levels from Fire Chief Marc Bashoor and will reconvene at a later date to vote on a final budget.
Bashoor said the department may “face some challenges” depending on how many county employees take the optional buyout, of which about 500 are eligible.
He said, preliminarily, the county fire/EMS department will have fewer personnel due to the loss of a 35-member recruit class cut in fiscal 2013 due to revenue shortfalls.
According to budget documents, at the start of fiscal 2014, the county anticipates having 58 sworn personnel vacancies in the fire/EMS department through attrition and other factors, but only having funding to fill 31 of those vacancies.
“We recognize things are tight. We’re significantly lower than where we need to be based on the staff paradigm we are at today,” Bashoor said. “It hurts us from a response-time perspective.”
Bashoor said funding more personnel is increasingly important with the current attrition rate of losing three members per month and as the department prepares to build several new fire stations in the more rural portions of the county, noting that it takes roughly 30 personnel to staff a station.
“As you build budgets in the coming years, you have to take that into account, otherwise we’re going to be building empty buildings,” he said.
County Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison (D-Dist. 5) of Springdale said the council is still committed to funding public safety to the fullest extent possible and that the budget is not yet finalized.
“We are committed to public safety and that will not change,” she said.
Barry Stanton, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer for public safety, said the recent apparatus funding has been a sign of the county’s goal to improve public safety in Prince George’s. He said he is “very comfortable” with County Executive Rushern Baker’s budget proposal and said officials will have to see how things materialize with early retirement options and furloughs before determining exact funding for the fire/EMS department.